Verizon now carries the iPhone. Unlike AT&T, they offer unlimited data plans, but there’s a bit of a catch. If you’re among their top 5% of data users, they reserve the right to throttle your bandwidth for the rest of your billing period (presumably after you’ve reached a certain data download threshold.)
This is an interesting question for those who favor equal access at equal cost for services like healthcare. If Customer A and Customer B both pay for the “unlimited” data plan, and Customer B uses ten times as much bandwidth as Customer A, is it fair to impose such a limitation on Customer B to make sure Customer A gets his share of the bandwidth? Conversely, is it fair to Customer A to be paying exactly what Customer B is paying, while only using a tenth of the resources? Whose interests have precedence here—Customer A’s right to get his fair share of the resources, or Customer B’s right to use the promised “unlimited” data as he sees fit?
Now, Verizon is a private business, and they can set whatever terms they want. Customers have the choice to either purchase data plans from them, or go to the competition. Think about your answers to the questions above. What if it wasn’t a private company, but a public service, bankrolled by tax money? Is your answer the same?
When you’re talking about stuff like universal health care, you have to sooner or later acknowledge the problem of unequal use of resources. If we all pay into the tax pot to the same proportional degree, what is to be done about those 5% of users who use a hugely disproportionate slice of the services? Some may need them, some may just use them because “I ‘m paying for it, and I want to get my money’s worth out of it.” When you remove the financial penalty associated with frivolous excessive use of a public resource, then there’s no incentive to limit the use of that resource.
A public system of services doesn’t mean you magically have an unlimited supply of a commodity. Public and private entities alike have to deal with excessive consumption. In both systems, you have to ultimately put someone in charge to decide what’s excessive and what isn’t, and come up with disincentives for the “getting my money’s worth” customers. What you’re doing in both cases is rationing the (limited) supply of bandwidth/MRIs/whatever.
That’s the snag you hit when you look at a finite and limited resource like health care, and you want to put together a system that dispenses that resource equally and fairly. I dislike the anecdote-driven arguments from the pro-universal health care folks who share stories of people dying because they couldn’t afford to go see a doctor, but who hardly ever acknowledge that yes, even with universal health care, you have to have a pencil pusher deciding who gets that MRI or cancer treatment first…or whether you need it at all.